What’s Up With Boxcar


What’s Up With Boxcar

We keep getting asked, what is going on with Boxcar Grocer? And the honest, straight-up answer is, it’s on pause.

The store in Castleberry Hill was closed for a number of reasons that include rising food and labor costs, not enough foot traffic, neighborhood ban on new liquor licenses to sell wine and beer in our building, two highly unsuccessful crowdfunding campaigns, no access to loans or grants for that location so we could hire more management and diversify inventory, and lack of infrastructure in the immediate area to help make it easier for people to actually access our store.

Plenty of consultants came along and said, just sell cheaper food.

Cheap food is part of the problem, not the solution. Running a healthy corner store that is not subsidized at any point in our supply chain means that the actual food costs are paid by the customers. Smaller buys mean higher prices because of delivery costs. The solution is to open more stores that would give us the ability to buy in bulk and distribute amongst our store network to help drive down the cost of the food.

Boxcar Grocer’s support for small farmers and local producers also meant helping to educate the public about the true cost of food. Massive re-education needs to occur so more people understand that government subsidies artificially drive down the cost of highly processed “cheap foods” that contain chemicals, lots of sugar, have little nutritional content, and contribute to costly health issues like diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.

This means small stores like ours (local fair trade) that don’t want to pump more unhealthy foods into the community can only compete if a community values real food and the people that work hard to produce it.

We’ve always had our eyes on long-term growth of Boxcar Grocer. Creating a dependency model for our store in the form of a non-profit was never an option. Communities with low food access need more vibrant business districts that can contribute to the health of the community rather than feeding off of its poverty and creating more dependency.

Nonprofits that ask for volunteer labor and donated goods and services while diverting its funds to handsomely paid executive team salaries are doing little but feeding off of poverty. That is not equity. (Read more about this from local farmer/educator Eugene Cooke)

Boxcar Grocer has always been about empowerment of small farmers, local producers, and consumers. That means allowing people to make healthier choices by educating them and helping to create an environment where more access to employment means increased ability to support one’s own health. Providing a living wage for our own employees is a necessary component in building a healthy business that could grow into a self-sustaining part of the community.

Unfortunately, in low access areas such as where our store was initially located (Castleberry Hill), lack of vibrant businesses means lack of political support for better infrastructure. And in addition to random film crews shutting down the street and cutting off access to businesses, we deal with:

Broken Water Meters: All of the city water meters attached to our building are broken. That means multiple small businesses get $2,000 and $4,500 water bills. (We can’t run our businesses when random overpriced utility bills show up for no reason.)
Dangerous Sidewalks: The sidewalks are so busted that strollers and wheelchairs cannot effectively navigate them. (Anyone work for the ADA?)
Broken Streetlights: When we opened our store, only about three streetlights on a half-mile strip of Peters Street worked. (We successfully got them all turned on but it meant Alphonzo had to spend a few days getting in touch with Georgia Power then had to drive the entire length of Peters with their technician to point out which lights worked and which ones didn’t. And that was well before he became neighborhood president.)
Lack of Security: The businesses on our block have to collectively hire off-duty police and security to provide a safe environment for patrons and businesses. This is a costly operating expense that is part of running a business in an under-developed neighborhood.
No Bike Lanes: Alphonzo recently started working with Atlanta Bicycle Coalition to help increase support for bicycling infrastructure from the small business community.

block

For four years we tried to operate a store AND improve this block and it was time intensive, diverted money away from the business, and stalled any rapid progress we hoped to have. This is what it means to run a business in a low access area.

When people ask what we are doing right now, at this very moment, it is trying to get at least some of these things fixed to help improve the block. We’ve spent four years reporting these things to the City of Atlanta only to be told over and over that they have no intention of fixing either the meters or the sidewalks. We’ve spent those same years meeting with multiple contractors to find out if we can all just do it ourselves. The sidewalks cost a minimum of $20,000 to fix. Moving and fixing the utility meters costs thousands more.

We are also exploring other options Boxcar Grocer may have in other neighborhoods and looking for investors who understand that getting a 20%+ return in less than three years plus 50% equity is not a reliable metric for success in a food business such as ours where the margins are so low. We have the blueprint for a scalable, sustainable model of food access that can work in multiple communities (not just low access), now all that is needed are the funds to make it happen but it costs about $275,000 to open each store.

If you want to know how you can help support the work we are doing, check out some of the items we do have for sale online. Also, support your local farmers. The more support they get, the more vibrant the community can become because, in the end, we are all only as healthy as the Earth that keeps us alive every day.

 

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